Prime Lenses: One Focal Length, Many Benefits

The market today is flooded with ever-better zoom lenses built to cover practically every imaginable range. And yet there are still photographers who make do without any zoom at all. Is it really possible to stick to just one prime lens and completely forget about all the other focal lengths? What do you lose? What do you gain?

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AuthorVit Kovalcik

I’ve been a freelancer since early 2012; photography is my living. I acquired my photography experience, both inside and outside the studio, during the previous years—when I was working all day and taking pictures every evening and weekend. I don’t have just one clearly defined topic; I like photographing people, but also cityscapes and landscapes.

Comments (2)

  1. .
    Good challenge reminder — use one focal length for a while.

    I often use a different lens each day just to keep my chops fresh.

    I have as many single-focal-length lenses as I have multi-focal-length lenses, so staying with only one lens of either type all day keeps me aware of each lens’s features and benefits in support of my photographic storytelling.

    I hope you keep editing and rewriting your very thoughtful article, incorporating feedback, because …

    … even though you open the article implying that single-focal length lenses have wider maximum available apertures than multi-focal-length lenses …

    … later in the article, you let slip that you have a single-focal-length lens with a narrower widest aperture ( f/4 ) than one of your multi-focal length lenses ( f/2.8 ).

    Me too.

    You also name the article “… One Distance …”, but any lens, single- or multi-focal-length, can focus on subjects at many distances — far, near, some lenses of either type can microscopically close focus.

    Here’s a list of my observations while reading your article:


    Wider apertures enhance a photographer’s ability to
    — capture a usable exposure hand held in low light,
    — capture a clear image of a moving subject in low light,
    — limit the depth of the subject field of focus to as narrow as possible,
    — extend the longevity of flash batteries or the distance a flash can penetrate during exposure,
    … and these are not a feature and benefit of single- or multi-focal-length lenses, but of wider apertures compared to narrower apertures.


    You also mention sharpness, but that is a result of many variables, not just the generally relative simplicity of light-path and lens elements in single-focal-length lenses compared to the generally relative complexity of light-path and lens elements in multi-focal-length lenses.

    Regarding sharpness, consider also lighting and capture-medium sensitivity versus subject movement, subject depth, camera movement, and JPEG versus raw-with-post-processing.

    Considering lens’s different intended design feature sets, a modern super-multi-coated flare-resistant macro close focus aspherical minimum-x multi-focal-length lens may offer the potential for images where the photographer’s intended subject appears sharper than an image from an older less-well-coated flarey non-macro non-close-focus spherical single-focal-length lens that was designed for widest aperture rather than penultimate sharpness, especially considering that at it’s widest aperture, it’s depth of subject field focus may be shallower than the photographer’s indented sharp subject …

    … for example, at a lens’s widest aperture, if a person’s eye is in focus, but their nose and ears are noticeably less sharp, once you then stop the aperture narrower to, say, f/8 to acquire your intended subject depth of field focus, it hardly matters if you started at f/1.2 with a single-focal-length lens or f/4 with a multi-focal-length lens to get to your desired f/8 through either lens.


    Please do not repeat this canard.

    The only condition that matters is the difference between the photographer’s perspective and the perspective of the audience of the photographer’s presentation ( display panel, print, projection ).

    If the audience perspective is the same as the photographer’s perspective, there is no perspective distortion.

    If the audience perspective differs from the photographer’s perspective, there is perspective distortion.

    To eliminate perspective distortion, move the audience to the same perspective used by the photographer, that is, make the presentation smaller or larger, and or move the presentation closer or further away from the audience, until the angle of view of the photographer’s presentation and the angle of view of the audience are the same angle of view.


    Although this is a nice concept, if it exists at all, I blame it more on the photographer being the same throughout, and the similar subject matter — portraits of people at a wedding — and the limited close focusing capabilities of the lenses used — no macro shots — more than on the single- or multi-focal-lengths of the lenses used.

    For example, to create a suite of similar-feeling shots, using a multi-focal-length lens, I can quickly zoom to crop in-camera and equally frame each of my subjects, versus needing to crop post-capture when using a single-focal-length lens ( or always stand equidistant from each person — ha, try that walking around huge circular tables surrounded by barely cooperative guests facing all directions ).

    … and so on, creative artists in a precision field can go on and on, can’t we?

    Thank you again for the provocative article.

    The bottom line for me is to use all my gear all the time to maintain my awareness of each piece’s features and benefits, each piece’s pros and cons for me, and perhaps let go of items with more cons than pros for me, return them to the flow of the used market, so my kit is all pros for me.

    When someone asks me, “… what’s a pro photographer ? …”, I can respond, “… a pro photographer is someone who knows all the pros of their resources, and has eliminated all of the cons …”

    1. I am impressed! Thank you for the extensive feedback!

      So let’s get to it:

      The title was last in translation. The original version of this article was written in Czech and is slightly different. This obviously should have been “Prime Lenses: One Focal Length, Many Benefits”. We are considering a fix, but it may or may not change the URL too, so if you return later, this exact page may cease working. But the article should be here somewhere under new location (you might be redirected).

      I agree with you that there are some unusual primes with a small aperture (Tilt-Shift anyone?), but I wanted to emphasize the rules that are the most common and are the primary reasons people get prime lenses.

      I still think that the aperture is definitely the reason number 1, 2 and 3. And in cases the aperture is the same or worse that that of a zoom lens, it is the weight (why didn’t I mention it in the article?).

      I agree that the sharpness used to be a deciding factor, but some of the current multi-focal lenses are so great that they can stand up even against great primes. I own the Canon 24-70/2.8 II which is an example of this progress.

      But, while there are exceptions to the mentioned rules, my opinion is that in general they are still valid. There are exceptions to almost any rule you can imagine, but this article is just an introduction to the prime lenses for those who are not used to them. Once, you are knowledgeable, you can pinpoint the exact lenses which break the rules… but in that case you don’t need the article anyway :)

      About the feel: I guess there is no definitive answer. 100 photographers (or 100 clients) = 100 different point of views.

      50 mm: I disagree with you on this one. At the first glance it seems that what you write is valid, but there is a crucial effect that you should take in might: Consider that you are placing a photo on a blank wall and let people walk around and admire your art. Whoever will come by and stop to look at it will position themselves in a distance according to the size of the photo (!), i.e. for small prints they will be close, for the large ones the audience will be further away – driving by natural feel. So, the perspective will remain approximately the same. Whereas it is exactly 50 mm or 43.67 mm I can’t tell, but it is somewhere around this number.

      Anyway I am glad that my article was thought provoking. I hope you will enjoy the other ones as well :)

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